In the age of the selfie, what makes a memoir more than just an advertisement for the self? That’s a question that may trouble readers of “The Elephants in My Backyard,” by Rajiv Surendra.
Now a successful chalk artist in New York, Surendra first tasted fame 12 years ago when he played Kevin, the rapping mathlete in Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls.” During that production, he learned that “Life of Pi,” the Booker-winning novel by Yann Martel, was to be turned into a Hollywood movie.
For Surendra, then a young teen, this was the providence he needed. Like the novel’s main character, Pi, Surendra is South Asian, had lived near a zoo and had experienced a multifaith upbringing. And so began Surendra’s 10-year journey not only to pursue the role of Pi, but to become Pi, with all the disappointments and awakenings this kind of journey involves.
Surendra ticks all the boxes one would expect to find in a memoir based on such a premise:
●Hollywood tell-all: emailing with Martel as Surendra wins but then loses the role through a revolving door of directors.
●Acting-industry racism awareness: being mistaken for an Ethiopian slave at Toronto’s Pioneer Village.
●Method research: staring down a tiger at his local zoo.
●Personal awakening through travel: flying to Pondicherry, where the fictional Pi attended school.
●Hero-meet: visiting Steven Callahan, the naval architect who survived on a raft for 76 days in the Atlantic Ocean.
●Personal tragedy: dealing with his alcoholic father
But despite clear enthusiasm and wonder, Surendra suffers from the young memoirist’s lack of self-awareness. Though the trip to Pondicherry is intended to be inspiring, his interactions with the students sound like the musings of a privileged Westerner. His encounters with various characters (a priest in Pondicherry, an eccentric old lady) are often disproportionately reverential. For all his breadth of experience, Surendra mostly sidesteps anything that might reveal anything deeper.
The best parts of the memoir come toward the end. Surendra’s sexual awakening as a gay man is related with a sweetness and openness that could inspire other teenagers. Surendra’s creative awakening as a chalk artist is welcome, too, and his drawings scattered throughout the book display obvious talent. Surendra is also a clear stylist, and he brings sensitivity to his writing despite its tentativeness.
But unlike the novel that so influenced him, “The Elephant in my Backyard” often feels like an Instagram post. The best memoirs require authors to put away the social media shtick and reveal their essential selves. “The Elephant in My Backyard” suggests Surendra has a ways to go yet.
Nicole Lee is a writer based in New York.